In 1970 Paul Celan published a single line in the Paris journal L’Ephémère: “La poésie ne s’impose plus, elle s’expose” — Poetry no longer imposes itself, it exposes itself. Exposure resonates throughout Celan’s work: the isolated self, scarified by the horrific forces of history, exposes its wounds to the world in eloquent, gnarled, and deeply troubled word-shards. Celan is the central European poet of his moment, for his work most searchingly registers the malign force of that black hole at the 2oth century’s center — the Holocaust.

2020 marked the 100th anniversary of Celan’s birth, to a German-speaking Jewish family in Bukovina (then part of Romania, now Ukraine). It also marked the 50th anniversary of his suicide in the Seine in Paris, where he taught at the École normale supérieur. His truest homeland, paradoxically, was not a place but rather the German language — the language of the Nazis who had kept him in a forced labor camp for two and a half years, who had murdered his parents.

From 1967’s Atemwende (Breathturn) on, Celan’s later work is so deeply rooted in German — its capacity for endless agglutination, obscure technical and scientific vocabularies, archaic usages, etymological puns — that it seems to defy translation. Michael Hamburger, who produced fine English versions of Celan’s earlier verse, confessed that he found many of the late poems to be untranslatable, not merely because of their polysemy and wordplay but also an “uncertainty as to what the poem is about that would have made translation little more than guesswork.” He felt that he needed a certain mastery, a clear understanding of the poem at hand, before rendering it into English. 

No amount of etymological knowledge or background research, however, will make late Celan lucid or possible to master: the poems’ darkness, their obscurity of utterance is part of their very nature. As literary critic George Steiner observed in his essay “On Difficulty,” these poems confront us with “blank questions about the nature of human speech, about the status of significance, about the necessity and purpose of the construct which we have, with more or less rough and ready consensus, come to perceive as a poem.”

It’s by a species of Keatsian “negative capability” — which he defines as “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason” — that the Luxembourg-American poet Pierre Joris, at home in avant-garde idioms where clarity and direct “meaning” are less central than in Hamburger’s English tradition, was able to translate the whole of Celan’s later poetry oeuvre. Joris’s translations, gathered in 2014 as Breathturn Into Timestead: The Collected Later Poetry (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), are English versions that aim to reproduce all of the rebarbative strangeness of the German originals. 

What’s key to translating Celan, Joris recognizes, is not a mastery of the poem’s meaning, but a reproduction of the experience the poem affords its reader — an emotional and sensory experience that includes an element of purely intellectual bafflement or frustration. “I cannot see any basic difference,” Celan wrote in 1960, “between a handshake and a poem.” A handshake is an experience of shared human contact, of mutuality — but not primarily, or even necessarily, of understanding or clear communication.

Joris has brought his decades of Celan labor to a close with Microliths They Are, Little Stones: Posthumous Prose (Contra Mundum Press) and Memory Rose Into Threshold Speech (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), a translation of Celan’s earlier books of poetry. The centerpiece of any collection of early Celan is, for better or worse, “Deathfugue” (“Todesfuge”), written in 1945 and collected in the 1952 volume Poppy and Memory (Mohn und Gedächtnis). It is a bravura, nightmarish tour-de-force, a labor-camp scene in which a blue-eyed slavedriver orders his Jews to play music, to dig a grave in the air:

Black milk of dawn we drink you at night
we drink you at noon we drink you evenings
we drink you and drink
a man lives in the house your golden hair Margarete
your ashen hair Shulamit he plays with the snakes
He calls out play death more sweetly death is a master from Deutschland
he calls scrape those fiddles more darkly then as smoke you’ll rise in the air
then you’ll have a grave in the clouds there you’ll lie at ease

“Deathfugue”’s emphatic triple-meter underscores the fugal recombination of its grim elements: the black milk, the snakes, the digging. It is perhaps the most shocking poetic confrontation of the Holocaust in the immediate postwar years, driving home the fact that “death” is precisely German (as Joris points out, this is the only occurrence of the word “Deutschland” in Celan’s poetry). 

“Deathfugue” became a very famous poem, included in anthologies and on syllabi. Without outright repudiating it, Celan came to distance himself from it as he felt it represented a more straightforward, even didactic idiom which he had outgrown. The last collection in Memory Rose into Threshold Speech, 1963’s NoOnesRose (Die Niemandsrose), shows Celan beginning to explore the impacted, laconic mode of his later works:

WHERE the word, that was immortal, fell for me:
into the heaven’s ravine behind the forehead,
this is where goes, led by spittle and litter,
the sevensisters’ starflower that lives with me.

Celan’s early voice is no less troubled than his later, but it is more voluble, more expansive. The poems have clear antecedents in Georg Trakl’s tense expressionism and even in some aspects of Surrealist poetry, but they also chime surprisingly often with Rilke’s and Yeats’s symbolism. (Indeed, one might compare Celan’s endless recycling of a limited palette of images — eyes, eyelids, candles, hair, stones, lips, almonds — with the early Yeats’s reiterated roses, reeds, and “dim hair.”)

Paul Celan, Microliths They Are, Little Stones: Posthumous Prose, translated and with a preface by Pierre Joris, 2020 (image courtesy Contra Mundum Press)

Joris as translator is more comfortable with Celan’s later than his earlier poems. While the translations of Memory Rose Into Threshold Speech are lexically sound, Joris only intermittently evokes the patterns of meter and rhyme to which Celan often turns. The poems’ lyricism is blunted; early Celan ends up sounding stranger and more angular in English than in German. Such cavils are swept away, however, by the richness of the presentation, which includes over 150 pages of detailed commentary: a guidebook to the poems and a kind of thumbnail intellectual biography of Celan himself. Perhaps the greatest advantage of the volume, for a reader of English, is having all of Celan’s earlier work gathered together. This provides an opportunity to trace the growth and metamorphosis of his idiom in the voice of a single translator.

Celan’s Collected Prose, translated by Rosmarie Waldrop in 1986, barely breaks 60 sparsely printed pages. Almost every one of those pages is valuable, however, especially the two speeches he gave when receiving prizes — one in 1958, from the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen, the other (“The Meridian”) in 1968, on receiving the Büchner Prize. “The Meridian” is an indispensable text in 20th-century poetics. In 2011 Stanford University Press published Joris’s translation as The Meridian: Final Version—Drafts—Materials, a sprawling collection of several-hundred pages of notes and drafts that were boiled down into this 18-page lecture.

If one is hoping for such riches in Microliths, some 200 pages of posthumously assembled prose, one will be both disappointed and rewarded. There are draft passages for narrative works (none of them get very far); some almost Beckettian dialogues from unfinished plays; and a fair collection of aphoristic passages, in which one gets flashes of a humorous Celan, as in this squib (“The Hegelbahn”) aimed at Theodor Adorno:

A writer and trapper, with a head like a Reich- and university-apple sunned to baldness under Californian knowledge-trees, took himself — the Far-West Prussian does indeed exist — for no one less than Hegel.

A more pointed jab, echoing Adorno’s well-known statement “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” is Celan’s “Whoever mystifies after Auschwitz, shrouds all human misery.”

Richer is a substantial collection of “poetological” jottings, among which one stumbles on suggestive, illuminating fragments:

True poetry is anti-biographical. The poet’s homeland is his poem and changes from one poem to the next.

Poems are porous constructs: here life flows and seeps in and out, incalculably strong-headed, recognizable, and in the most foreign shape.

Poems probably do not change the world, but they change the being-in-the-world. 

Most tantalizing are some 20 pages of notes for an undelivered lecture “On the Darkness of the Poem,” which would have dealt directly with the issue of “obscurity” in contemporary poetry — and, by implication, in Celan’s own work:

There exists, on the near and on the far side of all esotericism, hermeticism, and such like, a darkness of the poem. Even the most exoteric, the most open poem … has its darkness, has it qua poem, comes, because it is a poem, into the world dark. A congenital, constitutive darkness, then, that belongs to the poem today.

The notes here on the “Goll Affair” are painful reading. Celan had known the Alsatian poet Yvan Goll for a few months before his death in 1950. Three years later, after Poppy and Memory brought Celan significant recognition, Goll’s widow accused Celan of plagiarizing her husband’s work. These baseless accusations were widely circulated in literary and academic circles, and caused Celan — whose work was based not in literature but in personal trauma — immeasurable pain. The paranoia they exacerbated is evident throughout the letters and personal statements he wrote on the “Goll Affair”; they clearly contributed to the growing psychic unrest that led to Celan’s intermittent institutionalization and his two suicide attempts — the latter successful.

Celan was fond of Osip Mandelstam’s notion of the poem as a message in a bottle, sent out in the faint hope of reaching some sympathetic reader. In the half-century since his death, his poems have found innumerable readers — even across the barbed-wire boundaries of language, thanks to such heroic translators as Pierre Joris. The obscurity of his bottle-messages is “congenital, constitutive”: the disquiet they provoke is a vibration of the damaged, traumatized soul of the century from which they arise.

Memory Rose Into Threshold Speech: The Collected Earlier Poetry, A Bilingual Edition by Paul Celan, translated by Pierre Joris and with commentary by Pierre Joris and Barbara Wiedemann, is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2020).

Microliths They Are, Little Stones: Posthumous Prose by Paul Celan, translated and with a preface by Pierre Joris, is published by Contra Mundum Press (2020). Both are available online and in bookstores.

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Mark Scroggins

Mark Scroggins is a poet, biographer, and critic. His recent books include the poetry collection Pressure Dressing, the essay collection The Mathematical Sublime: Writing About Poetry,...